Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Seeking Gospel, European Tourists Flood Harlem Churches

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Seeking Gospel, European Tourists Flood Harlem Churches

Article excerpt

ALMOST 200 white tourists, most of them Europeans, had been standing outside the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for 45 minutes on a recent Sunday morning when one of the three ushers in charge of crowd control broke the bad news.

Picking a point about three-quarters down the line, usher Roger Feggins politely informed the tourists beyond it that there would not be enough seats for them at the 11 a.m. service, and that they would have to go around the corner to a different black church.

"They can take you there," Feggins said. But a huddle of four Swedish tourists refused to budge. "I'm sorry," Feggins said. No movement. "I'm not playing games," Feggins said. Nothing. Finally, one of his adversaries piped up. "Can't we stand?" asked Erik Blennberger, his face betraying the panic of a theatergoer who had been intent on "Rent" but was being asked to settle for "Cats." "You're being outrageous," Feggins said. "You're not respecting me. This is a CHURCH." But to Blennberger, it was something more and something less: a highlighted entry in his Swedish guidebook, a must-see for any Swede doing the Big Apple. It was Abyssinian or bust. So two minutes into the standoff, Feggins threw up his white-gloved hands and walked away, letting the Swedes enter. "I try not to bicker," he muttered, "but this is getting too big." A decade-long influx of foreign tourists visiting Harlem churches has swelled considerably over the last year, to the point where Harlem on a Sunday morning has been transformed into something of an ecclesiastical theme park. Charter buses roll in by the dozens, lining the avenues. Tourists spill out by the thousands, pointing cameras at churchgoers like paparazzi swirling around celebrities at a movie premiere. Inside many of the churches, scores of white people in jeans and sweat shirts sit in second-story balconies, separated from the black churchgoers in finely pressed suits and dresses on the main floor. At some churches, there are more tourists than congregants. Most tourists say they come for cultural enrichment, and most congregants say they are honored by the interest that outsiders are taking in their houses, and styles, of worship. But as the spiritual carnival grows more hectic, the more unsettling aspects of it come into bolder relief. "People don't just go there for the religion," said Patricia J. Williams, a black professor of law at Columbia University who has published many essays on race relations. "They go for a show; there's this sense of whites being on safari. All that's missing is the hats." In this country, there is a long history of white fascination with black worship, particularly in the South, Professor Williams said, recalling a Civil War-era picture she once saw of white people laying out picnics on a riverbank so they could watch black people baptize one another in the rushing waters below. All around the world, she added, religious rituals are often seen by tourists as one of the most accessible and theatrical windows into a different culture. …

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